Bedtime made easy

At your wits’ end? Is your baby keeping you awake night after night? Here’s some help from the experts. BY ELISE-MARIE TANCRED for YOU Pulse magazine.

"Is your baby sleeping through yet?” New parents are asked this question time and again, and with good reason.

An uninterrupted night’s sleep is critical to a sleep-deprived mom and dad. And the experts agree: if a good routine isn’t established early on a lack of sleep could ruin the quality of life for both parent and child.

Kids aren't getting enough sleep
“A healthy sleeping pattern is one of the most valuable things parents can teach their children,” says Jan Top of Panorama Hospital’s Sleep Clinic. New studies of children with behavioural problems show, among other things, that they’re not getting enough sleep.

A three-year-old, for example, should have at least 12 hours sleep a night. Too little sleep can quickly make toddlers aggressive, hyperactive and prone to tantrums. In the long term researchers believe lack of sleep can even adversely affect a child’s brain function.

A good foundation is everything
Experts say children can be taught good sleeping habits. How you instil them is less important than sticking to a routine.

A regular bedtime drill, such as a warm bath followed by storytime, is so effective that simply starting to read will make your child feel sleepy.

“You should start a bedtime routine on the very first day you come home with your baby,” Top says.

Although newborn babies can’t distinguish between night and day, you can begin by teaching them the difference between playtime and bedtime.

During the day you can play with and talk to your baby, and even wake her up for breastfeeding. Make sure the baby’s room is bright and well lit during the day. In the evening dim the lights, talk in a softer voice and play classical music.

How to get it right
Here’s an example of a good sleep routine to establish with your child:

  • eat, bath, have a short chat about the day’s events
  • read a story or sing a lullaby
  • then – most importantly – say good night, walk out of the room and close the door even if the child kicks up a fuss
  • older children must be sent back to bed at once if they get up

Although some doctors recommend controlled crying technique (ccT) – a method that encourages parents to let their small children cry for a short period before they get attention – others argue that the technique is cruel and teaches children from an early age that their emotions aren’t important.

Sister Lilian, South Africa’s best known midwife and author of various books on baby care, says new research shows that children who don’t experience emotional security as babies are more likely to resort to violence once they’re older.

“By the time they start attending school they are already in therapy or have developed learning or behavioural disorders.” She is a great advocate of the family bed, especially if both parents work.

Alternative strategies
“These days, children see very little of their parents, so it’s no wonder they wake up at night to check if their mom is still there. Babies have a great need of physical contact and nurturing.”

Heart surgeon Dr susan Vosloo says she and her husband improvised an enormous family bed out of two double beds when their twins were little. “We couldn’t afford to get up tired every morning. There was more than enough space and we all slept well.”

According to sister Lilian sleeping problems are unusual in poor communities and traditional cultural groups. “People often don’t have the luxury of a room for every child.

Babies sleep with their parents, and when they’re older several children may sleep in one bed. Children sleep when they’re tired, not according to a schedule. In communities like these family relations are mostly free from anxiety, neurosis and feelings of guilt.”

According to sister Lilian a more “adult” sleeping pattern develops in children from around four years of age, and any expectations that a child will sleep through the night before then are unrealistic.

TIP: Put your baby into her cot if she’s sleepy but not quite asleep.

If you allow her to doze off while rocking her in your arms, she will think it’s the only way to fall asleep.

What about medication?
When your little one is keeping you awake almost every night it can be tempting to reach for the cough syrup, or even a sleeping drug, so you can all get some shut-eye. Not a good idea, according to experts, as there are all kinds of risks involved.

Steer well clear of the following

  • Medicines, such as painkillers and some cough syrups, containing codeine. codeine can be addictive. Under no circumstances should medicines containing codeine be given to babies younger than one year.
  • Sleeping pills. They are not suitable for children because they can delay physical and mental development.
  • Syrups containing antihistamine. this drug is used to treat allergies and can make some children drowsy but giving antihistamine is not a way of getting a child to sleep.
  • Medicines containing caffeine or pseudoephedrine. they could keep your child awake. Some cold syrups contain these substances.
  • Any medication that is not specifically marked as “paediatric” medicine.

For more information on all things pertaining to your baby's sleep needs, and how to improve your own chances of getting a good night's rest, visit the Parent24 Sleep centre.

How much sleep is enough?


Age Night-time sleep (hours) Daytime naps (hours) Total sleep (hours)
1 month 8,5 (very short naps) 7,5 (very short naps) 16
3 months 6-10 5-9 15
6 months 10-12 3-4,5 14,5
9 months 11 3 (2 naps) 14
12-18 months 11 2,5 (1-2 naps) 13,5
2 years 11 2 (1 nap) 13
3 years 10,5 1,5 (1 nap) 12
4 years 11,5 0 11,5
5-7 years 11 0 11
8-9 years 10-11 0 10-11
10-11 years 10 0 10
12-13 years 9,5-10 0 9,5-10

Read more:

Sleep strategy for busy babies
Visit Parent24 for more stories and advice on bedtime.

This article is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in the September 2008 edition of YOU Pulse / Huisgenoot-POLS. The current edition is on sale now.

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